Saturday, May 14, 2011

What lessons are our children really learning? It is time to break the code of silence and the phony outcomes game!

What lessons are our children really learning? It is time to break the code of silence and end the phony outcomes game!

Jimmy has disabilities and struggles at school, but had never been evaluated for special education. Some kids that live near him were bullying him, before, during and after school. His parents complained to the school staff, but little was done….. and he became more and more upset. In an apparent effort to deal with the bullying at school, a speaker was brought in to address all the students about bullying. At the end of the speech, he offered the students his email so they could write him. The next day, Jimmy wrote that he was being bullied and was not getting protected and was having suicidal thoughts. The speaker told the Principal, who called the parents and suggested that Jimmy be hospitalized. When Jimmy returned to school, little changed. The bullying continued. Jimmy finally couldn’t take it any more and fought back. He was suspended for fighting and still the school did not stop the bullying nor evaluate him. What does it teach the victim when he is ignored when he seeks help and, not getting help, is punished when he fights back? What message does it send to the bullies when they are not punished, but the victim is? Can teachers feel safe and supported if their administrators are not willing to take decisive action to maintain control of the school and assure that bullying, aggression and violence are not permitted?

Sally has learning disabilities, AD/HD, Reactive Attachment Disorder and auditory processing problems, along with other disabilities. She is only 8 years old. She receives special education services at school and has an outdated behavior plan that calls for the staff to record all of Sally’s behaviors and to email the parents if there are any serious behaviors. Recently, the teacher and staff in the class have been logging as many as 180 behaviors a day and emailing the parents 10 or more times a day about all the problems she is having. Most often, the reports show the behavior, but nothing is being done to change the behavior or to change the strategies that have been repeatedly unsuccessful. Because the plans aren’t working, Sally is spending much of her class time in time out and the staff are spending much of their time recording behavior data, but not addressing the behavior. Isn’t learning supposed to include learning that we need to change our strategies when they aren’t working? Isn’t it likely that Sally has learned that she can escape the work that is difficult for her if she acts out, because then she is removed from the work? Is that what we want Sally to be learning about behavior? How much academic learning is Sally able to do when there are so many behavior problems occurring? What is the teacher learning, when she is spending enormous time recording data and sending reports to the parents, but no one is analyzing the data or helping her to identify what may be causing Sally’s behavior or to find better strategies for addressing it?

Andre had a reading disability and Asperger’s Syndrome, but is very smart. His teachers didn’t think that he had a disability, because he was able to perform reasonably well in school. The parents were insistent that he needed extra help or would begin having serious problems. The school finally agreed, but the teachers were skeptical, feeling that he didn’t need their help and it was a waste of time. At the end of the year, one of the teachers told the parents that Andre had made remarkable progress with the strategies that she had started using, but that she had discovered that many of these strategies were also very helpful with most of her other students. It’s great that the teacher was able to recognize and acknowledge the effectiveness of the strategies the parents were recommending, but what would have happened if the parents hadn’t known to ask for a change? How long would Andre have had to fail before the staff realized that something different was needed? Isn’t part of learning that we always strive to find solutions to problems and to find new and better ways to learn and teach, even if things are working adequately? Sometimes new strategies initially involve more work. Working with kids with disabilities, and teaching generally, can be emotionally and physically exhausting. But what lessons to we model for kids when we repeat what is familiar, rather than challenge them and ourselves by trying things that are new and setting standards that require them and us to stretch higher?

Tommy’s mother was worried that he didn’t seem to be learning much at school and struggled with the little homework that he brought home. Recently, the school did a three year reevaluation of Tommy. Tommy’s mother was very confused because the staff reported that he had made lots of progress and had tested in the average range in the school’s psychological testing. Tommy’s mother decided to get an outside evaluation done to help to figure out why Tommy was struggling so much if the school’s testing was accurate. When the evaluator began to test Tommy, he not only reported that he was familiar with the tests, but that the teacher had spent worked with him to practice taking the tests at school and had helped him while the formal tests were being done by prompting him if he was giving an incorrect answer. How is Tommy helped by being assisted to perform on a school evaluation so he will appear to be functioning much higher than he really was? What will Tommy learn from being assisted to cheat on an important test? What accountability does a teacher or evaluator have for encouraging a student to cheat? Is this isolated or are educators receiving subtle or even explicit pressure to teach to the test and to take questionable measures to increase the test performance of their students?

Bonnie had a variety of fine motor and speech problems. She had an IEP with very modest goals in these areas and she was getting passing grades. Even though Bonnie had many continuing problems with speech and sensory-motor skills, the therapists and teachers decided she no longer needed speech or OT services and that the teachers could provide whatever help she needed. Is it realistic to expect teachers to know how to help Bonnie if the specialists aren’t involved? Is it fair to Bonnie or the teachers to expect them to do even more to assist with Bonnie’s problems when they already have a full load of activities and aren’t trained to provide these services? Is it wise educationally to reduce services to Bonnie (perhaps to save money), when the many needs Bonnie still has may create further academic and other problems for her as she continues with her education and into adulthood?

These stories are amalgams of the experiences of a number of children with whom I have worked in the last few months. While the names and details have been changed for obvious reasons, each story is based on real situations. There are many excellent, committed and compassionate teachers and educators working in our schools. And there are many good schools and good school districts. We ask them to do the impossible, but give them the resources to do what is unacceptable. But in the ongoing debate over the lack of adequate outcomes from our educational system, as part of the debates over No Child Left Behind, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the push for accountability, innovation, flexibility, and less regulation and control, the stories above and many variations are frighteningly commonplace. I have grave doubts that some of the proposals for reforming education that are currently being discussed will improve the schools. In fact, I fear that many of the proposals may make things worse.
Students and educators all deserve better! It is tempting to focus on quantitative measures to promote higher quality in our schools, but it is an impossible mission. We must broaden our view of the role of the schools to include not only academics but the wide range of life skills. These cannot be measured on school-wide tests.
We must broaden our training of teachers so that they are using the best educational practices to teach our students academics (skills that many currently lack), but also prepare them to be leaders and models for our students in relation to values, behavior, communication, and service. We must shatter the code of silence within schools in which low performance is hidden and professional evaluation is seen as a threat, rather than seen as a means to identify and solve problems. We must break down the barriers to parent involvement, both those erected by the educators and those resulting from parental indifference or inability to find time to be involved.
We must invest in teaching new teachers not only the basic content information they need to teach a subject, but much more in how to be a good teacher. We must rethink and redesign our ongoing in-service and continuing education programs for current teachers to give them access to the training to learn and master best practices. We must demand that administrators set expectations for their teachers and their schools that are geared to excellence in teaching, to maximizing the performance of all students, not only on test, but in their day to day work, and we must redefine the schools as open communities involving educators, parents and businesses, rather than as fortresses to be defended against attack from the public or from complaining parents or policy makers. We must recognize the importance of public education, the need for high standards and the cost of quality education. We must invest in our children, our teachers and our schools, rather than paying lip service to quality, accountability and innovation through gimmicks that require change, but are not likely to achieve the true changes we want and need. We must expect outcomes that improve the quality of our children’s education and their ability to succeed as adults, rather than outcomes that show statistical improvement, but do not correspond to improvement in real life. Too often, parents and teachers are now seen as opponents in the political arena. Isn’t it time that teachers and parents united and demanded better training, resources, and support.? It would be better for all of us.